Tiger stadium, Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium, the new ballpark in Baltimore: The American League East has, on balance, the best stadiums in major league baseball. Alas, it also has, on balance, the worst baseball in major league stadiums. Three teams in the East lost more than 90 games last season, and three will do the same this year.
In fact the division is about as balanced as a congressman's checkbook, with the Blue Jays kiting high above the rest of the field. "This team is pretty well balanced," notes Toronto designated hitter Dave Win field. "We're deep, got experience, got youth, speed, power, defense...." Which is why the rest of the division is playing for second place.
1. TORONTO BLUE JAYS
On paper the Blue Jays have the best team in the division by a kilometer. Then again, on paper is where you train your dog to go. "You can have the best team on paper, then all of a sudden you get some injuries, your whole team falls apart, and you finish in sixth," fantasizes Boston third baseman Wade Boggs.
It is an indication of how strong the Blue Jays are that their rivals in the East are already clutching at hopeless, hypothetical straws. As Winfield says of the Red Sox and the rest: "They have to think three times about us."
The first thing they have to think about is the Blue Jays' starting rotation.
Jack Morris. For the 1991 World Series MVP, happiness is being unhappy. "Maybe he's not always the happiest person," says Detroit manager Sparky Anderson. "But I don't know that happiness makes you a better competitor." Which makes Morris the perfect man to wring clutch performances from an otherwise throat-clutching team.
Juan Guzman. Do you know me? My 10-game winning streak last season was the longest by an American League rookie since 1963. I made 20 straight starts without a loss. And I didn't make my major league debut until June 7, which is why I wasn't named Rookie of the Year and why, come to think of it, no, you haven't heard of me.
Then there are Dave Stieb, who returns from back surgery; Jimmy Key, who won the 1991 All-Star Game that Morris started; and Todd Stottlemyre, who won 15 games last season.... You have to think five times about Toronto's rotation.
And of course there's Eddie Zosky. The Jays' lineup—Joe Carter, Roberto Alomar, Devon White, Kelly Gruber—is so potent that expediency dictates we discuss its lone deficiency rather than detail its many strengths. So we pose the question: Who has had a hit more recently, 1) Toronto shortstop Manuel Lee or 2) the Captain & Tennille? The answer is 2. Last season Lee became the first player in major league history to strike out 100 times without hitting a home run. Which has something to do with why Toronto may pencil Zosky, a rookie, into his spot. Zosky will find himself last in the batting order, close to last in The Sporting News Baseball Register and first in the American League East.
2. BOSTON RED SOX
Aside from naming Butch Hobson as manager; and coping with the broken left arm suffered by first baseman Carlos Quintana, who crashed his car while rushing to a Venezuelan hospital with two of his brothers who had been wounded by gunshots; and suffering the death of beloved owner Jean Yawkey; and wondering this spring where star pitcher Roger Clemens was, until he was finally sighted in a Houston pub called the Velvet Elvis; and signing lefthander Frank Viola; and reading the statement made by Boggs's agent, Alan Nero, who said his client and management were "as close as Khomeini was in his talks with Jimmy Carter"; and witnessing the proud, gallant efforts of second base hopeful Mike Brumley, who was issued bats this spring engraved MIKE BUMLEY; and failing to recognize first baseman Mo Vaughn, who shaved his head and lost 30 pounds after giving up his daily regimen of "three or four beers"; and installing an aggressive new running game in the spring, one that saw Red Sox base runners thrown out more often than sloppy patrons at the Velvet Elvis; and being acutely aware of the odd fact that the team had won the division in every even-numbered year since 1986; and realizing that fifth starter Matt Young was still having trouble keeping the ball in the park...on pickoff attempts; and noticing Hobson exhibit a faint facial tic when talking about the members of the staff beyond Clemens and Viola; and hiring Jim Rice as minor league hitting instructor, which one Boston sportswriter likened to naming John Sununu as traveling secretary—well, these few exceptions aside, the Red Sox have had an uneventful off-season, so we'll just move on to the...
3. MILWAUKEE BREWERS
You can pull for your favorite Brewer and you can pull your hamstring, but you can't pull your favorite Brewer's hamstring because chances are he has already done so himself. "Some injuries you can't help," says new general manager Sal Bando, who saw to it that the Brewers hired a conditioning coach for this traditionally load-laden team. "But if you're in better shape, you can limit the muscle tears and pulls."
The Brewers placed 13 players on the disabled list last season, six of them before May 8. Righthander Ron Robinson was lost for the season with an elbow injury after his first start. Outfielder Candy Maldonado, who is now with Toronto, broke a bone in his left foot in the second game. Decimated from the start, the Brewers went on to be centimated and millimated as well. And still they had a best-in-the-big-leagues record of 40-19 to end the season. "We're not rebuilding," says coach Duffy Dyer. "We're here to win the damn thing."
The building of a new ballpark in Milwaukee has been temporarily delayed by geologists who want to preserve a prehistoric reef on the proposed stadium complex site. But what of the rocks that catcher B.J. Surhoff and Jim Gantner will be pulling at third base this summer as they fill in for the recently traded Gary Sheffield, who is now with San Diego? What of the kidney stones that kept Robin Yount out of most of the 32 games he missed last season? What of those pitchers—after righty starters Bill Wegman, Jaime Navarro and Chris Bosio—who will be rocked in the rotation's fourth and fifth slots? Geologists were unavailable for comment.
We do know that the clubhouse is allegedly less rocky under new manager Phil Garner, who replaces Tom Trebelhorn. "We're having fun," says leftfielder Greg Vaughn, who led the team with 98 RBIs last season. "The last couple of years it was like boot camp out here. You weren't even allowed to stretch and talk at the same time." This year the chatter will be loud during pregame stretches. But listen closely while the players stretch: You may still hear the soft pop of a groin muscle, the crackling of joints, which bespeak baseball in Milwaukee.
4. BALTIMORE ORIOLES
Manager John Oates surveys the division and says, "Toronto and Boston have the two best clubs on paper, but...." There's that paper thing again. "In '89," Oates continues, "we were able to come within one game after finishing last the year before. And then last year the two clubs that...."
We should tell you right now that the ghosts of the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves were constantly conjured this spring by every also-ran in the East. "The Twins have given us all hope," insisted the Brewers' Bando.
"A lot of people are picking us last again," observed prescient (see below, way below) Indians reserve catcher Junior Ortiz. "But that's what they said about the Twins last year." Even the Blue Jays were sobered by the thought. "Anybody can do it," says Winfield. "As witnessed by Minnesota and Atlanta."
So which team in the division has the most reasonable claim to a reversal of fortune? The Orioles, who finished sixth last season and continue to assemble a pitching staff along the lines of Atlanta's.
A Hallmark card couldn't touch Mike Mussina this spring. "I hope it goes on like this for 250 innings," says the 23-year-old righthander. Mussina, a fast worker who needed only 3½ years to complete his economics degree at Stanford, joined the Orioles on July 31 last summer and immediately became the team's ace, with a 2.87 ERA. His ERA this spring? It was 0.90 in 20 innings pitched in his first five starts. As for 24-year-old righthander Ben McDonald? At least he will not open the season on the disabled list, as he did the previous two. But can he perform for 250 innings, much less win the 20 games that once seemed to be his birthright? The most innings he has ever thrown were his 126.1 last season.
And while shortstop Cal Ripken Jr. may have had the best year of any professional athlete last season and a healthy Glenn Davis could hit 35 home runs for the Orioles, the center of attention this summer will be Baltimore's new ballpark. Its clumsy name notwithstanding, Oriole Park at Camden Yards evokes the old Ebbets Field or Shibe Park, except that the bullpens at Camden Yards are, as God is our witness, wired for cable.
5. DETROIT TIGERS
Sparky Anderson may not be so quick with the hook this summer when that Elks Lodge emissary or PTA president throws out a ceremonial first pitch. Hey, good movement. Maybe she can go six? Which is to say that pitching is still a problem for the Tigers. "It's been a little problem for...23 years," concedes Sparky. "But I don't bitch about it. I've had many a good whacker."
Indeed, the Gambino crime family employs fewer full-time whackers than Detroit, which led all of baseball in home runs last season and finished second overall in runs scored. And here's a frightening thought: While his hindquarters could still headquarter most multinational corporations, the rest of Cecil Fielder was reduced by 30 pounds and converted to muscle by a workout regimen this winter—this after a season in which he joined Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx as the only players ever to lead the big leagues in homers and RBIs in consecutive years.
Impressed? Now take a look at some of the more hideous figures crafted last season in Sparky's Whacks Museum: the worst team batting average in the league; the most strikeouts in AL history; and three of the league's four most prolific whiffmeisters, outfielder Rob Deer (175), Fielder (151) and third baseman Travis Fryman (149).
Rust Belt? Detroit is smack in the middle of the Fan Belt.
What's worse, shortstop Alan Trammell awoke with back spasms one morning last month and was sidelined for 11 straight days. The condition of his back remains uncertain, as do the hopes of the Tigers. "We are legitimate contenders," says the ever enthusiastic Anderson. But we must enter a plea of nolo contendere on Sparky's behalf.
6. NEW YORK YANKEES
Third base may be a problem. New third baseman Charlie Hayes, acquired from Philadelphia, had the National League's lowest batting average on the road last season (.193) and the second-lowest average on grass fields (.178). Which means that Hayes will be fine this summer as long as the Yankees don't play any of their games: 1) on the road or 2) at Yankee Stadium.
Pitching, on the other hand, is not a problem. Sure, the Yanks' ace, Scott Sanderson, is 35 years old, and their No. 2 guy, Melido Perez, threw middle relief for the White Sox last season. And, yes, new manager Buck Showalter's rotation will have a collective ERA resembling the price of a barrel of oil. But the Yankee staff has the potential to one day be baseball's...tallest. Lee Guetterman, 6'8", is in the bullpen. Mike Witt, 6'7", was invited to camp, and other prospects include 6'7" Bobby Munoz, formerly of Puerto Rico's Junior Olympics basketball team; 6'6" Mark Hutton, an erstwhile Australian-rules football player; and 6'6" Big Will Smith. Hey, Mike Gallego: Let's be careful out there.
"We've got some holes, we know that," Don Mattingly was saying last month moments after standing at third base during BP, snaring line drives while wearing a batting helmet and first baseman's glove and looking as if he had the Yankees' third base problem licked. "But we do have some good young players. We have a good young manager. As long as we're improving and not stagnant."
Mattingly can be great again, and new rightfielder Danny Tartabull is becoming great, but remember: In the last 40 years Winfield is the only righthanded-hitting Yankee to have a 30-homer, 100-RBI season. Still, Tartabull is a good start toward stopping the Steinbrennerian stagnation of recent years—as is outfielder-DH Mel Hall, who went for the cycle this spring, low-riding to the park each day on his purple 1953 Harley-Davidson.
7. CLEVELAND INDIANS
"I like Cleveland," says catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. "It's disappointing that a lot of people think it's a joke. I'm proud to wear this uniform. It's major league baseball." He is right. We would like to abstain from telling another tiresome Tribe joke.
But...the Indians are looking forward to 1994 the way the Democrats will soon be looking forward to 1996—as the year in which they will finally win again. The Tribe will open a new ballpark in '94, their 40-year plan will be complete, their...Crop of Young Talent...will be...ready for...harvest...zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Sorry, where were we? Ah, yes. The 1992 Tribe. The Indians will lose 100 games. They are a Crop of Young Talent still being sown. But they are young, and they are talented. Albert Belle may hit 40 home runs and drive in 120 runs between disciplinary hearings alone. Second baseman Carlos Baerga looks like a hitter. Mark Lewis appears ready to displace Felix Fermin at shortstop, which would make Cleveland the only club whose highest-paid player is a utility infielder.
Lewis spoke recently of a night out in Tucson with some fellow Tribesmen when a pair of autograph seekers approached the players and asked if they were athletes of some kind. "We're with the Cleveland Indians," said Lewis. Said the fans, "So what?"
"Nobody wants anything to do with the Cleveland Indians," says Lewis. "It kind of makes you mad."
"I haven't been here through the past 50 years," says new general manager John Hart. "And neither have the players. It's not baggage we should have to carry." The reality, however, is that everyone associated with the team carries that baggage, and now, Clevelanders, we must hand you another piece of Samsonite by mentioning that Charles Nagy will be the Tribe's Opening Day starter. As The 1992 Elias Baseball Analyst notes, Nagy was born on May 5, 1967, a date that also birthed the following classic trivia question: Five hundred fifty-nine fans attended the Indians game at Municipal Stadium that night. Name them.
The Contract Factor
Below are key players in the division who are eligible for free agency after this season. Ripken, Boggs, Carter: Those are juicy names for next winter's postseason sweepstakes.
BALTIMORE: Storm Davis, Joe Orsulak, Cal Ripken, Rick Sutcliffe
BOSTON: Wade Boggs, Tony Pena, Jeff Reardon
DETROIT: Bill Gullickson, Eric King, Tony Phillips, Frank Tanana, Walt Terrell, Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker
MILWAUKEE: Chris Bosio, Paul Molitor, Dan Plesac, Robin Yount
NEW YORK: Jesse Barfield, Lee Guetterman, Mel Hall, Scott Sanderson
TORONTO: Joe Carter, Tom Henke, Jimmy Key